Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Christian community: the ultimate apologetic?

For a number of reasons, I have been thinking recently quite a lot about the place of the local church. The most recent prompt was a link on my good friend Dave Kirkman's blog to an interview with John Stott. The whole interview is pure Stott gold, and provides a wonderful overview of the strengths and weaknesses of current evangelicalism by one of its most respected leaders (and probably, along with JI Packer, the writer who has most influenced my thoughts).

One section in particular stood out for me, where Stott says the following:

Everywhere, people are looking for community, for relationships of love. This is a challenge to our fellowship. I'm very fond of 1 John 4:12: "No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us, and his love is perfected in us." The invisibility of God is a great problem to people. The question is how has God solved the problem of his own invisibility? First, Christ has made the invisible God visible. That's John's Gospel 1:18: "No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known."

People say that's wonderful, but it was 2,000 years ago. So in 1 John 4:12, he begins with exactly the same formula, nobody has ever seen God. But here John goes on, "If we love one another, God abides in us." The same invisible God who once made himself visible in Jesus now makes himself visible in the Christian community, if we love one another. And all the verbal proclamation of the gospel is of little value unless it is made by a community of love.

Hmm - all very interesting for someone like me who works alongside a para-church organisation. I love the Christian Unions I work with, and I passionately love the ministry of UCCF: The Christian Unions. It's true that Christian community is displayed in CUs. However, the place where that is shown in its greatest diversity is within the local church.

I remember a few years ago at my church in Bristol, a local politician was gobsmacked when he came along to one of our services. He was amazed that there was such great diversity in the room, and yet there was a unity and sense of belonging that was shared by all there. I guess we might say that, in some way, he saw God abiding in us.

I think this is going to make me much braver at inviting non-believers along to my local church. It's true that proclamational evangelism can (and, by the Holy Spirit, does) address both the emotional and intellectual needs that any person has. But the way in which these answers are most radically displayed is in the local church congregation. The local church is called to love in a way that nothing else in society can approach, because God's Spirit is at work.

I remember Don Carson once saying that, in answer to an apologetic question about Christian behaviour, a friend of his merely said, "Watch me." He was convinced enough that the Spirit had changed him that his own life would give the answer his non-believing friend looked for. And in the same way, I think maybe we (certainly I) need to be braver at saying, "Watch us." Have you never seen the love of Christians in action? I could give answers, but the greater answer is "watch us." Do you want to see what Christian discipleship looks like in action? "Watch us." Do you want to see how Christians live in a world of suffering, personally and across the world? "Watch us."

We will still sometimes fail, we are still 'work in progress', but the truth of 1 John applies: "if we love one another, God abides in us." What an incredible testimony, what an amazing way to underline the message we proclaim.


At 5:40 AM, Blogger samlcarr said...

While we get distracted with our differences, we forget our unity in love. The world watches.
Appreciate the thought.


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